cover image Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

Davis McCombs. Yale University Press, $16 (72pp) ISBN 978-0-300-08317-0

A worthy addition to the recent American literature of place, this year's Yale Younger Poets collection keeps to Mammoth Cave, Ky., where McCombs lives and has worked as a guide. The opening sonnet sequence is written in the persona of Steven Bishop, a slave who was a guide to the caves in the mid-1800s. Whether or not McCombs's period-ventriloquism is accurate, his just slightly stilted diction transforms ordinary observations into pleasing verse. ""He told of tides/ and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain/ to moonlight,"" McCombs writes in ""Star Chamber,"" while ""Echo River"" makes a more musical point: ""By slapping/ the water with the flat of my paddle,/ there comes a sound like the ringing of bells."" Building on these understated pleasures, McCombs sneaks broad sexual comedy past the reader in ""Visitations"": ""It is the women/ on the tours that give me pause, delicate/ ghost-white, how, that night, I'm told,/ they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar/ beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name."" The poems that follow miss the peculiarly off diction of the opening sequence--and even in those poems, McCombs goes back maybe too often to his key words: ""silence,"" ""light"" and ""night."" But the compellingly eccentric word choices and odd history and geography come together often enough to make this the finest Yale Poets selection in years. (Apr.)